India can feel like challenging and dizzying place for travelers. It can feel chaotic. This is all an illusion. It’s not dangerous as it is unpredictable. But even that is an illusion. I thought I’d tackle the top questions I get asked about traveling India and travel tips on Indian culture.
5 Top Travel Tips India: Surviving Indian Culture
5 Essential Travel Tips on Indian Culture
1. Acceptance and an open mind
I always describe India as a challenging country to travel. It’s not so much because it’s hard or dangerous. The challenging part is that you’ll see things in a raw and real way. India can make some travelers feel strongly. Either they love it or hate it. In India you’ll see an overwhelming amount of poverty, chaotic traffic. You’ll need to pay attention to the hygiene of things.
But the thing is despite all that, a good chunk of travelers like myself, will fall in love with India even harder.
My advice is to accept that’s the way it’s going to be straight off. Accept that it will be unpredictable, chaotic, a challenge from the lifestyle you come from… but… it will be an adventure you’ve never experienced. The key is go with the flow. The more I move fluidly, intuitively, patiently and trust things to work out, they do. Oddly. That’s my secret to traveling India.
Interestingly, Indian culture does not look at the impossible nature of things (at least that’s what I’ve noticed especially of working locals in lower economic brackets). I have had many travel moments when I didn’t think something was possible — like making the train on time in the thick of traffic, stuff like that… I’d ask a local (usually a taxi driver or service man). The response I often get is — “Yes, is possible”. Quite often, They found a way to make it so. Thus, the motto I’ve experienced in India is that anything is possible until its not.
2. Dress Code for India
When traveling India (or in any country that’s a little foreign to me), I try my best to follow cultural etiquette. I generally dress modestly so as not to attract attention. There are times, I even dress so I’m not attractive.
Play it safe ; dress conservatively
India is overall, a conservative country regarding the sexes. While you may find times are changing in society and urban youth are dressing more liberally in larger, well-touristed cities like Delhi, Goa or Mumbai, it’s still smart for foreign women to dress modestly and respectfully, so they are prepared for any situation they encounter. Especially if traveling alone. In more rural parts and small towns of India, dress is conservative and blending helps you to stand out less. The reason I practice conservative dress in general is that even in urban cities, I cross paths with locals from rural localities. Personally, it’s out of respect for them.
A safe dress etiquette : No bare shoulders or thigh high micro skirts or shorts. It’s safe to just cover up and bring a scarf along whenever in doubt. Scarves can also be used when entering temples (especially Sikh ones).
Dress Indian Style
While a foreigner will always look like a foreigner, it actually helps to dress in Indian fashion. At most, you’ll look a little more blended and country-smart. Indians will also look a little higher on you vs a typical tourist, as usually dressing in Indian garb shows your attempt to connect with the country. The Indian long-sleeved tops are lightweight and is cooling in the heat. Kurtas and salwar kameezes are also good for Indian modesty.
3. Safety & Sexual Harassment
I’ve gotten a lot of male Indian harassment on YouTube for speaking about this subject. The truth is, I have and haven’t experienced the worse. I didn’t express the entire truth on YouTube, knowing that platform can be taken wrongly.
Firstly, I haven’t noticed much theft and crime in India against travelers. Aside from your occasionally aggressive tout and scam guides, I’ve felt pretty safe. But it doesn’t mean crime can’t happen.
The top question of women interested in traveling India is about the rape and sexual harassment situation, we’ve all read in the media. Due to bad media publicity in the past, India has been called out as a country with a smudge on their reputation. Yes, India has a sexual harassment problem and rape does happen. (Read my shocking experience of witnessing what I believed was rape against a local girl).
Before getting hysterical, look at other facts to put it into perspective:
India is not considered the top country for rape according to world statistics.
Sweden, the United States and the U.K. take the gold, silver and bronze in the ‘rape category’. Sweden is clocked at 114.9 rapes per 10o,000. India has something like 1.8 per 100,000. Even with the large population and number of unreported rapes in India, the western countries have a rather high number to catch up to.
It’s a largely conservative and patriarchal country with a large population of men to women. Indian women can feel oppressed.
You will also see an overwhelming ratio of men to women on the streets. Men are very visible in blue-collar jobs, working in restaurants, laundry, and jobs you might find women doing in a western country. This can feel intimidating as a female solo traveler. It took me time to get comfortable with this aspect of India. Many Indian women stay at home and indoors. Indian women are on the streets, only when they need to be, is what I was told by a few locals. Women are protected in society, but they can also feel like second-rate citizens. Rapes can go unreported and happen by people the women have come in contact with to a relative uncle. In rural areas, having a girl is a burden to a family due to what was once expected in dowry payment for marriage. Female babies in such cases of poor families, were found drowned or left to die. In general, Indian men and families may feel concerned for your safety as a solo female. Indian men have advised me to avoid traveling alone in India. Keep in mind, Indian society is highly protective of women.
In white-collar and modern society you’ll find a little more of a mixture of men and women out and about.
There are Women Only seats on buses and in metro cars.
India is cognizant that problems exist and thus, have taken measure in an attempt to control the situation. However, it’s not perfect and you will find men occasionally dipping into the seats and metro cars, to escape crowded male spaces. If found in the metro cars, the police will take measures to fine or arrest them.
Sexual harassment laws in India are quite strict
Moreso than western culture (however, as in any country, law enforcement doesn’t always catch transgressors).
Did you know that singing lewd songs directed at women is considered sexual harassment? Offenders can get jailed up to 3 months or fined or both.
Unwanted physical contact against a woman’s consent is a crime which can jail sentence of 3 years.
Watching, capturing, sharing images of women in a private act without her consent is voyeurism, punishable up to 1-3 years + fine.
I advise women who fear safety to go online and google what Indian law considers a crime of sexual harassment. Know your rights going in the country, so you understand what’s punishable compared to your own country. Read one woman’s account of How it feels to be an Indian woman.
What might a female foreign traveler experience?
You might experience eve teasing (public street harassment or molestation) or sexual harassment in the form of light brushing. In one scenario, my boob got grazed by someone’s elbow. My reaction? I laughed a bit. As a westerner, it felt minor. But while a boob graze is seen as accidental and common in a tightly packed Western crowd, it js not common in India. It can be considered sexual harassment.
My friend, fellow solo travel blogger, Solitary Wanderer, experienced a stronger dose of eve teasing. (read here).
Knowing that foreign travelers are more tolerant of such transgressions, some Indian men or boys may try to test that to see how far they can push it. Generally, much unwanted physical contact is a minor infraction to westerners. And these actions are more the exception than the rule.
Tip: Avoid going out in public during Holi festival. While Holi is a beautiful festival, I’ve heard many traveler accounts of eve teasing manifesting under drunken, rowdy fun and throwing of powdered colors. Some female travelers still risk the danger, so they can experience the festivities.
What to do if you are sexually harassed?
Call attention to it or do the elbow jab to keep them away. If that doesn’t work, call the attention of the public or police. It’s not supposed to be happening and locals may come down on the victimizer.
Tip: There are many kind, gentlemen in India. However, to be safe, I’d advise women to avoid showing overly-friendly interest or flirting with Indian men, if there is no romantic interest. Politeness can be misinterpreted and magnified. In the past I’ve given my number or email out to helpful Indian men who showed concern over my safety. My phone rang several times a day, and I was emailed by one gentleman for a few years. If you reach out for help, look towards families and women first.
When I was there, the most drastic news I heard was about a foreign woman getting acid thrown in her face. She was staying with an young Indian man, having relations and then wanted to leave. The Indian family I was staying with at the time, feared my leaving their home, due to this incident. This case was an extreme case that generally doesn’t happen to travelers, but …acid throwing is something Indian women in extreme cases, have been subject to in the past.
4. What will make Indians stare?
95% of the time, Indians stare out of curiosity. If you’re a foreign traveler, you look different to them or you may be carrying something that is foreign to them. However, there’s two things I’ve noticed Indians will stare at.
Big city folks and Indian tourists at tourist attractions can care less about your camera, because they’re already striking poses for their own mobile cameras (I’ve seen a handful even doing their own photoshoots!). But outside of those heavy urban environments, you’ll find more curiosity towards the camera. Unlike other countries, an Indian staring at your camera does not mean thieving intentions. Cameras are equated with films and fame and just honest curiosity.
Tip:You’ll find India is a photogenic country, with the best and most genuine smiles. If you take a photo, show them the photo. In rare cases, I’ve gone to the local copy place to make copies.
2. Foreign Travelers (and moreso, blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin travelers).
That’s a bit of a novelty in Asia in general. But in India, there are many Indians that haven’t seen many ethnicities outside their country or town. Rural folks will be especially in awe of this. If you’re a family with young children who fit this description, keep in mind, your child may become the new sensation. Some Indians who don’t know any better, may try to touch it. They don’t mean harm or bad intentions, but it’s like touching an angelic being.
5. It will make a better traveler of you
What to do when things don’t go as planned in India
Being this was the third trip to India India, there’s one great Indian lesson I’ve learned…. nothing goes as expected. For Indians, this upset of order and acceptace of it, is built into their philosophical lifestyle. They deal with it by casually going with the flow, waiting and taking the next best option. Western travelers freak out when this happens, often because they don’t trust there’s a next best option or that things will work themselves out. Western countries are more rigidly organized and we’ve learnt to rely on rigid structures.
But there’s something to this way of accepting the Indian way of flowing. India’s system works by an organized chaos. Somehow, it all works out neatly when you got with the flow. For travelers, it teaches you to have faith in the greater good and yourself. Personally, it’s led me to find better resources and options I never knew existed . It’s also given me confidence to know I can adapt to flexible situations.
What are your essential travel tips on Indian Culture?
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